It’s the patient you’ve been dreading all day. The one you’ve put off until the end.
The mum is … very involved, the nurse warns you in the corridor.
Involved, you say.
She’s not horrible, the nurse corrects. Just concerned for her son.
You nod. Why wouldn’t she be? No parent foresees their child in intensive care.
You enter the bay and introduce yourself—the weekend physio here to do rehab with Ben.
We were wondering when you’d come. The mum smiles. She rises to take your hand.
You smile back and shake her hand. You always meet them at their level; read their body language and act accordingly.
Then you make eye contact with the two girls huddled on chairs. They smile a little and look away.
This is Kate, Ben’s sister. And Ash, Ben’s girlfriend.
You say, nice to meet you, as you move to stand beside Ben.
He has only a few lines and infusions in place. His heart and lungs are good. His body is fit and well, apart from his brain.
His eyes are closed. According to the chart, he’s lightly sedated. This, coupled with the haemorrhage, causes him to drift in and out of sleep.
He’s always been a champion sleeper. Haven’t you, darling? the mum says.
She grips his other hand as you begin stretches on the right arm; the one with more tone.
She asks if he’s in pain.
You give a loose explanation about the central nervous system, neural pathways, the body’s physical response to injury. You talk about monitoring a person’s face for grimacing, and a rise in heart and respiratory rate as signs of distress. Then you assure her that, no, Ben is not in pain. You always use the patient’s name. Forgetting or misremembering is not an option.
You move and stretch the arm. The muscles are young, the haemorrhage new. His body still has a chance to recover, to an extent. You turn the forearm, move the fingers. They’re long and thin. He bites his nails.
The mum says that’s the best movement his arm has had.
Good. You smile. You don’t tell her it won’t last.
The mum leans in. Great job, Benji. She kisses his forehead.
Beneath your skin, you are shaking, but the family can’t ever see. You are always sympathetic and empathetic, calm and knowledgeable. Above all, you know to guard your heart. Because there will always be cases like Ben, and it never stops sucking.
You chat to the family. The mum instigates it. She’s coping well on the surface. Ben’s sister, Kate, flew in from Sydney this morning. Studying law. Just finished exams. One more year to go.
You don’t ask Kate how it felt to hear her only sibling had an intracranial haemorrhage. Or how she was able to remember anything during her exams. Or if her parents even told her straight away.
A thick eggy smell fills the bay. Everyone pretends to ignore it. The nurse strides over, whips back the sheet. Nope, she says. He’s just fluffing.
You catch Ash’s eye. She looks away. You don’t ask if Ben used to joke about flatulence. And if she hated it.
The stench dissipates and is politely covered by the cold sterile air of the unit.
You move over to the left arm. At the same time, Ben’s mum announces they’ll go.
Ben tenses. His arms flex up to his face. He grips your hand. You feel his young male strength with all its force. It’s okay, Ben, you say.
His eyes partly open.
Oh look at that, the mum says. He knows we’re leaving.
No one wants to say his eyes are focussed on nothing. Or that there’s been no response to command since the accident.
The mum leans in. She kisses his forehead on the side that hasn’t had a piece of bone removed. Ben chews the endotracheal tube, tasting its discomfort as it breathes for him.
Goodbye, darling, his mum says. Kate and I are going now. But we love you very much and I’ll call tonight and I’ll be back first thing in the morning.
You watch them together. You have one small child at home, and another on the way. It pushes inside, reminding you what a terrifying privilege parenthood is. In your short time as a mother, you know you’d take their place, always, if you could.
Ben coughs into the tube.
Ash is right here, Benji. She’s not leaving.
Ash moves in beside Ben.
Goodbye, darling girl. The mum kisses and holds Ash for many seconds.
You don’t ask how close they are. Or how well they got on before the accident. Or how they feel about each other now. Or who gets precedence at Ben’s bedside.
Ben refuses to relax after his mum and sister leave. He remains rigid, mouthing his ET tube, his brain lost and alone in the dark. Ash strokes his hair. She stares into his eyes, those windows to the soul, searching for him.
There’s an eternity symbol tattooed on his inner-forearm. You don’t ask if it’s for her. Either way, the answer will hurt.
You move down to the legs. You stretch his ankles. You bend his knee up and down.
Bend with me, Ben, you say. Up and down. But he pushes against you, his muscles like rods of steel.
His thighs are scattered with hair all the way up to his covered groin, from which trails a catheter tube. His heels are cracked.
We’ve been massaging cream in, Ash says. He’s always had shitty feet. All that soccer. He never lets his shoes air out.
Typical guy, you smile.
Ash smiles back over the crumpled sheets.
You finish and move to the chart to write your notes. You steal glances at Ash. Her black hair covers her face. Her makeup is thick and white under the fluorescent lights. She has a nose ring. She’s dressed in a black jumper and track pants.
You don’t ask if she’s also twenty-three years’ old. Or how long they’ve been together. Or how serious they are. Or what their last conversation had been.
Ben’s lips move, as though he’s whispering sweet nothings. It almost looks like there are two people sharing an intimate moment.
Ash leans in, kisses Ben goodbye, says something only she’ll remember.
You don’t ask if she knows Ben’s prognosis. Or if she feels trapped.
Well, goodbye, she says as she grabs her bag.
You smile and nod and say something like: take care driving home.
You watch as she walks off down the corridor. Her steps are small in a big world.
You finish your notes and gather your paperwork. Outside, the sun breaks through an overcast day, bruising the sky with apricot light, just once, before it grows dark.
Merran Jones’s fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming in, Prairie Schooner, After the Pause, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Molotov Cocktail among dozens of others. She lives in Adelaide, Australia, and is a physiotherapist and mum in her spare time. See more of her work at: www.merranjones.com.